Six steps to supporting Afghan refugees arriving in your school

Written by: Katy Isaac | Published:
New arrivals? School children pictured in an north eastern Afghanistan village in the summer of 2019 (image Adobe Stock)

As refugees from Afghanistan begin to arrive in the UK, primary schools across the UK are ready to welcome the children of these families. Katy Isaac offers six steps for supporting these children and signposts to useful resources


As schools prepare for the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan, many will be considering the best approach to welcoming refugee children and their families and meeting their needs.

A statement from the charity Refugee Education UK (2021) helps articulate why this is so important: “Education is protective; it is how these children will begin to rebuild their lives and look towards their futures.”

Wellbeing will be a priority. Refugees from Afghanistan will have undoubtedly experienced trauma and have left friends and family behind, and special consideration should be given to this. Schools can provide a sense of belonging and ensuring children can experience the routines of normal school life is a significant part of this.

It is also important to note that refugee and asylum-seeking children have the same entitlements to education as other pupils, and that schools have a responsibility to ensure these learners can fully access the curriculum. Whatever their current demographic, it is advisable for any school expecting the arrival of refugees to review their policies and practices for pupils using English as an additional language (EAL).

In essence, supporting refugee pupils from Afghanistan, or any other country for that matter, is about good inclusive practice. Here are six suggested steps.


Step 1: Prepare staff

Review any new arrival policy and procedures in place: Check they are up-to-date and suitable for the specific needs of refugee pupils. Guidance on new arrivals and refugees and asylum-seekers can be found on The Bell Foundation website (see further information for all links). Ensure the whole staff, including office staff, are familiar with the school’s new arrivals procedure and associated roles and responsibilities.

Information-sharing: If the school receives specific information from the local authority or other organisation about a child arriving, share this with all relevant people – the teacher, classroom support staff, senior leadership team, and office staff.

Allocate CPD time: Training possibilities include those through The Bell Foundation and Refugee Education UK. In addition, the National Education Union has produced resources to support schools to deliver CPD sessions on welcoming refugee children. Consider giving staff time to explore the resources suggested in step 2, below.

Avoid generalisations: While an understanding of the context of refugees arriving from Afghanistan can be helpful, the experience of refugees cannot be generalised and nothing will replace getting to know the individual child and their family.


Step 2: Prepare pupils

Culture of inclusion: The arrival of refugee families from Afghanistan provides an opportunity for schools to review how they promote a whole-school culture of inclusion and empathy. Resources to support this include books about refugees (see the BookTrust for a list suitable for primary children) and resources (suitable for key stage 2) produced by the British Red Cross for Refugee Week (June 20-26, 2022). There are more suggestions in the Schools of Sanctuary Resource Pack and links to many other teaching resources on its website.

Learn to say their name: Guard against framing a new arrival as a victim or “other”. The short animation Our Story (Kilogramme, 2018) is suitable for key stage 2 classes expecting a new class member. Its simple message is one that all primary-aged pupils can respond to: “Smile, let them play with you, and learn to say their name.”


Step 3: Welcome the family

First meeting: Arranging a meeting with the family prior to admission helps ensure a smooth start and is an opportunity to establish a partnership. Ideally, arrange for an interpreter. If this is not possible try other communication aids – Dari and Pashto are available on Microsoft Bing Translator, for example. Further guidance on admission meetings with refugee families can be found on The Bell Foundation website via the Refugees and Asylum-seekers page.

Previous education: Find out about the child’s previous education, language practices (including literacy), their likes, and any worries. Explain why questions are being asked and avoid asking anything emotive or intrusive. After the meeting, share a written pupil profile with all relevant staff.

A tour of the school: The child is likely to appreciate a peek into their classroom but try to avoid making the experience overwhelming (a first visit might not be the best time to introduce them in front of the whole class, for example).

Consider differences: Be mindful that the education system will be different and unfamiliar. Parents/carers might appreciate copies of the guidance documents translated into Dari and Pashto available on The Bell Foundation website (see the Parental Involvement resources). Ensure they have key information, such as pick-up and drop-off times, in a clear format that they can take away.

Sharing information: Discuss how information will be shared with the family. If they will have difficulty accessing key documents or letters, investigate translation possibilities and explain opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

Community involvement: Invite parents/carers to be involved in the school community – joining a parent group for example. Signpost opportunities in the local area, such as ESOL classes or play groups, and any local organisations that support refugees.


Step 4: Help the new pupil settle

Relationships: During the first days and weeks the priority will be to help the pupil feel welcome and safe and to support them to build relationships.

Briefing: Brief all staff on the pupil’s arrival, not forgetting lunchtime staff. Consider displaying a photo with the pupil’s name and any key information in staff areas.

Basic needs: Ensure the pupil’s basic needs are met – that they know the procedures around toilets and drinking water, for example. “Communication fans” can allow pupils to indicate basic needs or emotions with a picture in their first few days. See further information for just one example (from SparkleBox). Remember too that newly arrived pupils are likely to feel tired at first so offer a space where they can go if they need downtime.

Buddies: Buddy the newly arrived pupil with one or two kind and friendly peers to guide them with routines throughout the day. Be alert to unfamiliar practices that could leave the pupil feeling confused or scared if they are not prepared, such as changing for PE. Elsewhere, pair them with other (kind and friendly) pupils to do activities that do not rely on proficiency in English – sharing a “search and find” book, for example. This can encourage new friendships and help develop their social English.

Home language: Where appropriate, make home language resources available. For example, Mantra Lingua has some Pashto and Daridual language picture books. These can be listened to if the school has an accompanying TalkingPEN, a device which enables an audio playback of the text. Also Refugee Education UK has produced a welcome pack for newly arrived Afghan children in English and Pashto or Dari (see further information).


Step 5: Facilitate learning

Assessment: Ideally arrange a home language assessment (see The Bell Foundation resources, below) which will help establish what a learner can do in their first language and how this can be built on.

English proficiency? A clear picture of the pupil’s proficiency in English will allow appropriate strategies to be put in place, supporting access to the curriculum and English language development. The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools can be used to assess listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing, through observations of the pupil in class and tasks and activities that are part of normal learning. New arrivals will need time to adjust to their new environment and begin to settle in, so it is not usually appropriate to complete an assessment before they have been in school for at least two weeks. Use the assessment tools and classroom support strategies within the framework to plan what the next steps are and how the learner can be supported.

Scaffolding: Support access to the same learning as the rest of the class through scaffolding (see further information), ensuring that the pupil is given age-appropriate and stimulating tasks. If a different task is necessary, linking it in theme will help the pupil feel included, and will support them in beginning to access the curriculum.

Interventions: Where EAL intervention sessions are provided, ensure these are purposeful and planned with the teacher. At first, some work on “survival English” may be appropriate, but the aim should be to link any intervention to the class learning. Consider carefully when the pupil will be withdrawn from class, avoiding times where there are fewer barriers to full participation (art or science experiments, for example). For more advice, see The Bell Foundation’s guidance Integrating Students using EAL into Mainstream Lessons.

Be patient: Have patience with progress in English proficiency. Progress in some skills may need considerable time and support, and initial progress may not be visible immediately.


Step 6: Review your provision

  • Check-in with the pupil and their family/carers. Find out if there is anything more the school can do to support them.
  • Check-in with the teacher and others involved with supporting the pupil. Find out what is working well and where they might need support.
  • Network with other schools with refugee pupils from Afghanistan to share good practice.
  • Plan for what could be done differently next time and what resources need to be put in place. Schools of Sanctuary offers an audit tool to support with self-assessment.
  • Find ways to acknowledge and celebrate your refugee pupil’s achievements, also giving credit to all those in the school community who support them.
  • Katy Isaac is a trainer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk


The Bell Foundation resources

Further information & other resources


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